On February 27, 2023, Meghalaya will hold its 11th General Election to elect representatives for its 60 assembly constituencies. It marks a long journey from its creation as a separate hill state on January 20-21, 1972. Despite its initial impetus to unite the Khasi, Jaintia, and Garo communities for the preservation of their racial identity, language, and culture, Meghalaya still faces significant economic and social challenges even after 50 years of existence.
According to the Reserve Bank of India’s 2023 annual publication, Meghalaya’s contribution to total tax revenue of the nation for 2021-22 was only 0.3 per cent, while newly carved states such as Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, and Uttarakhand contributed 2.3 per cent, 2.0 per cent, and 1.1 per cent respectively. Furthermore, Meghalaya’s outstanding liabilities amount to a staggering Rs. 17433.1 crore.
One of the reasons for Meghalaya’s poor economic indicators can be attributed to the prevalence of xenophobic politics. Despite the world embracing neo-liberal policies, Meghalaya struggles to detach itself from the negative consequences of xenophobia.
The idea of Meghalaya being a State of people having ‘pure blood’ is espoused by various militant organisations, which is like the ideology of the Third Reich under Adolf Hitler. The rise of xenophobia in Meghalaya can be attributed to the strong sense of group identity, where individuals identify with their own group and view outsiders as a threat. This has led to an “Us vs Them” mentality and the demonisation of outsiders.
The taking up of business opportunities by non-native individuals and playing a significant role in running the economic wheel of the State leads to frequent unjustified demand of ousting established economic activity. This in turn results in frequent skirmishes, resentment and hostility towards immigrants.
However, blaming outsiders for societal problems or issues is not a sustainable solution. The native civil society needs to take matters into their own hands for the upliftment and development of the State’s citizenry. The presence of an entrepreneurial mindset among the natives could potentially help alleviate the problem.
The unfounded threat of indigenous culture being under threat from immigrants is totally unfounded as the major threat is from western influence on the indigenous culture. Therefore, it is important to increase contact and interaction between different groups to reduce xenophobic tendencies. Positive experiences with those from other cultures can help to reduce negative stereotypes and increase understanding and acceptance. The recent violence in Shillong in November 2022 following killings in the Assam-Meghalaya border demonstrates the level of unacceptance that non-native individuals or more commonly known as Dkhars have to face in Meghalaya, highlighting the urgent need to address the issue of xenophobia in the State.
Secondly, the prevalence of an unholy nexus between the State apparatus and mafia has led to a situation where the State’s natural resources, including its forests, rivers, and minerals, are being exploited for personal gain rather than for the benefit of the State and its people. This exploitation has also led to environmental degradation, with rampant deforestation, pollution, and other negative impacts on the natural environment.
Moreover, this exploitation of natural resources has exacerbated the already high levels of unemployment in the State, particularly among its youth. Instead of creating jobs and opportunities for the State’s citizens, the profits from these resources are being siphoned off by a few powerful individuals, leaving the rest of the population struggling to make ends meet. To address this issue, there is a need for increased transparency and accountability in the management of natural resources.
The State’s youth population is a significant demographic, and it is essential to provide them with opportunities that allow them to contribute meaningfully to the local ecosystem. It is crucial to actively explore avenues to enhance employment prospects for its young citizens, particularly in the natural resource management sector, which has vast potential for growth. Creating job opportunities for the youth in the natural resource management sector, such as forestry, agriculture, and wildlife conservation and supporting businesses that operate in these sectors can create spin-off employment opportunities for the young people.
A new government should prioritise natural resource management because of the abundant natural resources available in the state, including forests, minerals, and water. These resources can provide significant economic benefits if managed sustainably and responsibly. By creating employment opportunities in these sectors, the State can not only provide livelihoods for its youth population but also support the sustainable management of natural resources.
There are many individuals in the State who possess the necessary education and skills but are unable to find employment opportunities that align with their qualifications. By tapping into this potential, the state can create a skilled workforce that can contribute to the development of the natural resource management sector.
Thirdly, the existence of customary laws within a constitutional framework can pose significant challenges in the execution of major development initiatives. These unwritten rules and practices that have been passed down through generations are deeply rooted in local traditions, cultural values, and social norms. They can perpetuate discriminatory practices, particularly against women and marginalised groups. This is due to their lack of transparency and accountability, which makes it difficult to ensure that everyone is treated fairly and justly.
One of the most pressing issues arising from customary laws in Meghalaya is the high percentage of single mothers, child marriages, and sexual offenses against children, which is a cause for concern and puts a dent in Meghalaya’s matrilineal social structure. The traditional practices that govern inheritance and property rights also pose a challenge for women, who often find themselves at a disadvantage when it comes to accessing land and other resources.
Customary practices may have a glamour factor in cultural festivals, but empowering the people through better educational institutions, better job opportunities and alternative livelihoods may be more effective in preserving the culture and identity.
On 3rd March, 2023, it will become clear whether the people of Meghalaya opt for a government that prioritises development or one that clings to the traditional mantle of cultural preservation at the expense of progress.
(The writer is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Fashion Communication at National Institute of Fashion Technology, Shillong. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached at email@example.com)
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